ESSAY Chris Moss

NWR Issue r13

The Story of Books

Home of the global literature festival franchise, the highest concentration of second-hand bookstores in the UK (23 shops, 1,600 inhabitants) and more high-brow browsers than Oxford or Cambridge, Hay-on-Wye is the UK’s official ‘town of books.’ It must be true: it says so on the road signs as you enter.

From wood-panelled Booths to fiendishly themed Murder & Mayhem to the magical-looking Black Mountains Bindery, the place reeks of dusty almonds and cellulose.

The last thing this small town on the English border needs, you’d be forgiven for thinking, is anything else in the bookish vein.

Not so, says Emma Balch, former designer and publisher and resident of Clyro, a village-cum-suburb just 1.5 miles northwest of Hay. In April 2017, the area will see the soft opening of the UK’s first museum dedicated to the printed word.

Housed at Baskerville Hall, a sprawling hotel – also in Clyro – the Story of Books will be a working museum of vintage printing presses, an exhibition space for book-themed displays, a showcase for the finest cover designs, fabrics and fonts, and place to sleep, eat, drink and, if you can find the time, read.

In December last year, I visited Balch at her home – a beautiful refurbished longhouse-type cottage, where she lives with her husband, author and journalist Oliver Balch, and their two young sons. There were books and pamphlets everywhere, printing presses in the garage, random papers and museum-related objects filling the car boot. Online and offline there was a flurry of activity. Balch was in a race against deadlines. So why, I asked her, did she decide to tell the Story of Books?

‘The idea first came to me in 2012, when we’d recently moved to Hay,’ she says.

‘I was in the Hay Cinema Bookshop, I must have been in there two hours, picking up random books. I began to look at how books were bound, thinking about the people who wrote books, and who wrote the blurbs. I realised there were a lot of stories to be told about books.

‘It occurred to me that people often have a rather flat relationship with books. I didn’t want to just sell people a book. I began to do some research. I bought Books: A Living History by Martyn Lyons, where he writes about papyrus, printing, bookshops, serialisation, science books, the first photography books and the future of books.

‘There were so many possibilities there, so many angles, and no one has to be excluded. All aspects of social history are covered in the history of books.’

Initially, she thought about taking over a local chapel or other small space and, through one-off events, telling different stories about the stages of book production and book history.

But when Balch met Dr Matt Thompson, senior curator at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, he offered her one simple piece of advice: ‘Think big and really go for this.’

‘From then on I became ambitious,’ says Balch. ‘I began to question why cities have all the big galleries and museums. Why should they? I think it’s a key part of my character to take on projects other people believe are doomed.’

She dived into research and was inspired by all manner of books, from Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (a novel which became a museum) to Alessandro Marzo Magno’s 2013 book, Bound in Venice, which recounts the rise of the book as a thing of beauty – and pleasure – in Renaissance Venice.

She toured printing museums in Barcelona and Basel, and stayed at Leipzig’s Spinnerei, once Europe’s largest cotton mill and now a mega-complex housing ten galleries, dozens of artists’ studios, a communal arts centre, work spaces for fashion designers, architects, printers, a goldsmith, a pottery, a film club, a porcelain manufacturer, and an arts supply store, as well as restaurants.

Balch, who was born and raised in Horsforth, West Yorkshire, says the seeds of her eventual vision were sown when she was a child.

‘The Spinnerei blew me away, but we used to go as a family to Salts Mill [in Saltaire],’ she recalls. ‘It was a textile mill and now has an art gallery, shops, and restaurants. That was the first multi-use space I’d seen. Much later, living in Buenos Aires, I got used to this type of cultural centre.’

Early conversations with Hay Castle came to nothing. ‘I presented ideas in 2013, we had a few meetings, but I didn’t fit with their plans at the time and their funding application.’ (In May 2016, the castle received a £4.4m lottery grant. Refurbishment work is set to start in spring 2017.)

Undeterred, Balch’s plan began to take shape in March 2014, when she met London-based collector Michael Fenton. A skilled compositor and printer, Fenton runs a market stall, The Old Printing Shop, at Portobello Road and Covent Garden, retailing wooden and metal type, illustrative blocks and other items.

But Fenton – helped by his wife and two sons – has been collecting printing equipment for decades and has amassed one of the largest collections of printing presses in Europe. All the major models are contained in the private collection – for the connoisseur, there’s a Stanhope, Atlas and Britannia, several Albions, a Columbian, and lots of Adanas. On her smartphone, Balch shows me a tiny Albion Press, only a bit bigger than a pound coin.

‘Only two were ever made,’ she says. ‘Anyone who knows anything about printing will be interested in those. ‘He decided he wanted a place to show them off. Also, he wants them to be working. He has woodcuts, scrapped plates from presses, all kinds of print-related paraphernalia.’

Fenton was enthusiastic, but – a resident of Ealing, West London – he wondered if the Welsh borders were not too far from everywhere else.

The Balch family live less than half a mile from Baskerville Hall. Their two sons go swimming there. When Emma realised that the old printing presses were going to require a large amount of space, the property became a serious candidate.

‘I argued that London was too expensive,’ says Balch. ‘I also stressed that we were going to need a lot of space. I invited Michael and Marjorie Fenton to come up in January 2015 and they loved it.

‘We spent two hours with David Hodby, the owner of Baskerville Hall, and the Fentons said they couldn’t imagine a better home for their collection. We realized the site was a good fit. You have the name Baskerville, a font and a famous book, there’s the space, accommodation on site and it’s just off a trunk road.’

Meanwhile, Balch was reading up new developments in museology, notably the work of Erik Schilp, former director of the maritime history and heritage-focused Zuidersee Museum and the Netherlands’ Museum of National History. In a pamphlet titled The Ten Principles of Museum Entrepreneurship, Schilp exhorts forward-looking museum owners and directors to think virtual and digital, consider kids as the key market, experiment and explore new approaches.

After attending Geneva’s MuseumNext conference in April 2015 – which attracts some 600 museum professionals from 39 countries – Balch realised it was important to be innovative.

“There were senior staff from the Science Museum Group, the Hermitage, Art Basel, the British Council, the Olympic Museum. Some directors and curators told me they often felt limited because they had inherited institutions with established ways of doing things.

‘But the feedback I got from the event was a positive response – these experts didn’t think the Story of Books was a crazy or unrealistic idea. That gave me the confidence to take the project forward and keep learning from and being in touch with these people.

‘I decided I wanted the Story of Books to be fluid, flexible, ethical, and community-based. We’re registered as a B-Corp, a benchmark standard for social enterprises. We bank with Triodos ethical bank and have taken our legal advice from Bates Wells Braithwaite, the first legal firm in the UK to be a B-Corp.’

I accompanied Balch around Baskerville Hall. The site is huge, somewhat piecemeal –a 19th century main house, mid-20th century extensions –and there’s a tired, old-school feel about the hotel. But builders were busy in one bedroom, number nine, redecorating the walls with designs from a Folio Society edition of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Balch has resisted seeking public funding in this time of austerity and is hoping sponsorship from publishers and a collaborative approach – operating the exhibitions and workshops within the on-going hotel and function business – will turn a profit and allow her to steer the project down its own distinctive path.

In April 2017, there will be a pre-launch gathering of printers and publishers, known in the trade as a ‘Wayzgoose’ weekend. As well as a dinner, music and dancing, there’ll be a print and book fair, demonstrations, presentations, film screenings, talks, creative workshops and activities.

By September 2017, says Balch, the Story of Books will be fully operative and will have three distinct faces. One is a ‘creative company that tells the ongoing story of books through collaborative, inclusive experiences’ such as exhibitions, events, tours, products, publications and digital projects. This will be internationalist, inviting collaborations from overseas and taking its own expertise and ideas to foreign lands.

‘There’ll always be two major exhibitions,’ she says. ‘We’ll open with ‘No Words’, a space dedicated to illustrated books, and ‘How a Books is Made’ about book production, which will run for a year.’

For local residents there’ll be hands-on activities, such as calligraphy, printmaking, machine printing, papermaking, paper marbling and photography. The site will offer studios, a dark room and 70 typewriters. There will also be a publishing company; local graphic designers have already expressed interest in using vintage equipment.

Second is the physical space – Baskerville Hall – which will carry the motto
where stories are told and books are made.’ This HQ will be reinvented as a multi-faceted tourist destination, with the museum and hotel offering a year- round celebration of books, plus accommodation for 140-plus people.

Finally, there’s Haydun, a not-for-profit organisation that creates opportunities at Baskerville Hall, including respite, learning, training, supported employment, residencies, and volunteering.

‘The purpose is to give back,’ says Balch. ‘To create opportunities for people who need it, to tell stories that have been overlooked, to empower people through sharing books, stories, skills. It is about breaking through barriers and finding ways to connect and inspire.’

A ‘Disability First’ space, the Story of Books is already working with the Royal National College for the Blind, based in nearby Hereford. Balch is also reaching out to local organisations.

‘It was important to do this with the informal community already working at Baskerville Hall,’ she says. ‘I’ve also totally relied on five or six local business people. Without them I just couldn’t have done it.

‘I want to work with people who perhaps are finding it hard to find a job, or are struggling economically. This is a rural area with few jobs, with major challenges such as loneliness and suicide. There are few women working in printing, too.’

So Hay-on Wye gets a museum (of sorts) dedicated to books, and in a year when the town celebrates two significant anniversaries: April 1, 2017 is the 40th anniversary of Richard Booth declaring Hay an ‘independent kingdom of books’ and the Hay Festival celebrates its 30th year from May 25-June 4.

In many ways, the Story of Books seems too obvious an idea not to have been tried here before. But it takes someone with tireless energy to get if off the ground. Balch, an avid collector and energetic networker, fits the bill. Ultimately, for her it is a social project as much as a celebration of books.

‘There are so many barriers to understanding those not like ourselves,’ she says.

‘People tend to get stuck in groups that have been defined by others, or that they can't find their way out of. I am driven by a desire to bring people together through stories and making, not in a passive way, but to be part of the story.’

That doesn’t, she insists, mean that the Story of Books, in Clyro (‘In the end this was never about Hay, which is a good thing!’), will not be an edifying and inspiring experience for visitors.

‘I want the quality to be high so that a serious bibliophile will value it. But at the same time this is a project for ordinary people. Some may come for the engineering and printing. Others for the aesthetics. Others for history.

I hope the arts and books communities in Wales find it inspiring. I hope everyone gets as excited about it as I am.
Chris Moss is a travel writer. Keep up with the Story of Books at @thestoryofbooks


previous essay: Quo Vadis? And Why, Exactly?
next essay: Everywhere to Everywhere: Edward Thomas, George Borrow and the Open Road


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